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Melanoma Skin Cancer and the Young

Think Melanoma Only Affects Older People? Think again!

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Updated May 30, 2009

Robert A. Weiss, MD

Robert A. Weiss, MD

photo © mdlsv.com

Melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer, can afflict people of all ages -- the young, the elderly, and everyone in between. To provide some expert insight into the worsening melanoma epidemic and specifically how young people are affected, we turned to Robert A. Weiss, MD. Dr. Weiss is president of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery (ASDS), a 5,000-member nonprofit organization representing dermasurgeons, board-certified physicians who are specifically trained to treat the health, function and appearance of the skin and soft tissue.

How common is melanoma in young people?

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer and is the second most common cancer in women aged 20 to 29. If not caught in its earliest stage, melanoma can easily spread to other parts of the body. Melanoma can be found anywhere on the body -- both on sun-exposed areas and shielded areas of the skin and it's caused by sunburn and can be genetic.

If a person is under 30 years old, has a dark complexion, and tans easily, do they really have to worry about melanoma?

While older adults are at higher risk for developing skin cancer, the incidence of skin cancer is rapidly rising in young adults aged 20 to 29. Experts attribute this to excessive tanning and the increased use of tanning beds.

New genetic research from the American Association for Cancer Research suggests that dark-haired people who do not sunburn easily may be at risk for potentially deadly skin cancer, too. The research suggests that even people who have not been severely harmed by the sun may still be at increased risk of melanoma.

Are tanning salons really unsafe? Some claim that they provide Vitamin D that our body needs.

There is a misconception that tanning beds are safe. The public needs to be aware of the dangers of UV radiation and understand that just because you don't see the damage right away, doesn't mean it's not there. In fact, recent studies show there is a 75% higher risk of melanoma in individuals who started using tanning beds before the age of 35. In addition, tanning beds accelerate aging of the skin.

Studies suggest that Vitamin D deficiency during childhood is linked to the later development of breast, lung and prostate cancers, and recommend the best source of Vitamin D is 10 to 15 minutes of full sun exposure. Unfortunately, that recommendation may cause more harm than good; there are healthier alternatives that will provide the body with the necessary daily amount of Vitamin D:

1. Choose foods high in Vitamin D as part of a daily diet: it can be found in foods such as eggs, orange juice, milk, cereal, and some fish. In addition, food that is Vitamin D-fortified will be clearly labeled and offer shoppers a variety of options.

2. Vitamin D supplements: A variety of vitamin supplements are available without a prescription. The most beneficial aspect of taking supplements is that the body doesn't have to convert the vitamin for use, as it has to do with the sun's UV rays. Supplements are a fast and easy way to get Vitamin D into the body.

3. Everyday sun exposure: It only takes a few minutes of sun exposure, such as the walk from the car to the grocery store, for the body to manufacture Vitamin D. There is no need to seek additional sun exposure and risk developing skin cancer.

Why is it important to detect skin cancer early?

The 5-year survival rate for people whose melanoma is detected and treated before it spreads is almost 100 percent; therefore, it's important to perform regular skin self-exams. Both basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma also have a better than 95 percent five-year survival rate if detected and treated early.

What advice do you have for young people who face peer and social pressure to be tanned or to ignore sun safety practices?

I would like to reinforce the dangers of tanning and unsafe sun exposure. Young people should know that one American dies of melanoma almost every hour. If they're going to go out in the sun, they should take precautions to protect themselves from the sun's harmful ultra violet rays.

Young people should follow a few sun protection tips to ensure healthy skin:

  • Use sunscreen daily no matter what your skin type or how your body reacts to the sun.
  • Choose a proper sunscreen that blocks ultraviolet (UV) A and B rays and has a SPF of at least 30.
  • Don't be fooled by a cloudy day because 80 percent of the sun's UV rays are still penetrating the skin.
  • Avoid sun exposure during peak hours of intensity from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

How is the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery highlighting the risk of melanoma in young people?

Our "Almost 100%" campaign on Facebook.com represents the important message that skin cancer is almost 100 percent curable when annual skin cancer screenings are performed by a dermatologic surgeon and the cancer is caught in its earliest form. The ASDS decided to create a Facebook page to reach a younger demographic and provide them with resources that could potentially save their lives. The site has proved to be a forum to allow fans to exchange stories, post photos and maintain an open dialogue about skin cancer.

The ASDS' Skin Self Exam Kit can be downloaded free on Almost 100%, as well as the ASDS' Web site, www.asds.net. The kit includes instructions on how to properly monitor and measure suspicious moles and other lesions; provides statistics and background information about skin cancer; and examples of what to look for when monitoring moles and freckles for the ABCDE's of melanoma: asymmetry, border irregularity, color variation, diameter, and evolving (changes to a mole's size or coloring). In addition, the ASDS has provided consumers with a 12-month journal, which includes a diagram of the body to help them track mole locations and changes to the skin.

Source:

Robert A. Weiss, MD. Email interview. 15 May 2009.

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